FOSS can work in the Free Market

This is in response to LeafStorm’s excelent post about the market economics of software and FOSS caleed FOSS and the Free Market.

He goes into explaining the difference between rivalrous and excludable and does a good job at explaining why it’s not possible per say to sell software as if it were a traditional product (like sandwiches), I’m going to selectively quote the passages for the benefit of the reader:

If a good is excludable, it is possible to stop people who have not paid for the good from using it or enjoying its benefits. For example, computers are excludable – if you sell computers, people can’t use your computers for themselves without buying one from you first (the mostly applies to physical goods). An example of a non-excludable good is a fireworks show – anyone within a few miles can watch and enjoy the fireworks.

If a good is rival in consumption (“rivalrous”), one person using the good impairs or prevents others from using it simultaneously. For example, food is rival in consumption. If I eat a sandwich, you can’t eat the sandwich, and if you can, it will be in a form that you will not want to eat it in. FM radio is not rival in consumption. Everyone in an eight-mile radius could be listening to the same station, and they would all listen to it the exact same as if they were the only one.

He goes on to show how software is neither excludable or rivalrous and how efforts to make it excludable are attempts to defy the basics of market economics.

There is however one omission with the article and that’s with the assessment of Free and Open Source software as being condemned to always be produced by volunteers for free or by incidental funding such as support services.

What I would suggest is that we are looking at the problem the wrong way. While software is not rivalrous or excludable, software development as a service is excludable (although not quite rivalrous) and this is important. If your view of software is always on the visible finished product then your not going to be able to make any money in FOSS. Not directly from development anyway because you are fighting the economics.

On the other hand if you consider the service of development to be your product, then you are following the economics in the most direct way and can make quite a nice living from it, so long as you are able to get the people who demand the service to pay a fair price in a stable and predictable way. The people who pay for the service are the people who get to decide what will be developed and in what manner.

That is why non technical users should be involved with FOSS funding, they can’t direct development through their own skills, but they should be able to direct development (even if just slightly) through their purchase of developer time.

I was thinking today about a project to sell developer blocks, some made up certificate of value which would be sold at $120/€100 and which would entitle the barer to enter into development tracks and bug fast tracking. One alone wouldn’t be much, but if a bug or project can get a number of developer blocks from users then they can happily pay for development and build better projects with more stable developer time.

I’m sure many of us would love to be able to prioritise our bug with some lovely money, or add into a pot that would get us features and developments that we really need. This product would be sold and money would be taken up front, the company or organisation would act as escrow. The blocks would be both excludable and rivalrous as mentioned above.

I think it’s important to get Ubuntu and FOSS mainstream, but I also think it’s vital that we get user funded development into the mainstream as well. So far I’ve seen very poor support from my fellow Ubuntu community contributors to be involved or support such a system, I really need your help to spread the philosophy of user funded software development.